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Randy Ford Author- R & R

R & R

by Randy Ford

Jack went back to a temple where he saw a reclining Buddha, a Buddha lying down and welcoming death. It seemed smaller than he remembered it.  Before it hadn’t overwhelmed him.  Jack was rarely impressed.  He had been in Asia too long to be impressed by a Buddha.  Over the years he had seen many Buddhas.  Then why had this one attracted him? Why had he come back?  Why had he come back to this one?  He rarely went to tourist sites, but this site hadn’t been accessible since war began. Still it hadn’t been neglected.  Why hadn’t it been neglected?  Why had this Buddha survived?

Jack hadn’t planned to go inside the temple because he hadn’t planned to be in the region, which said as much about his situation as anything. He never knew where they would send him.  He never knew.  He wasn’t supposed to be there.  In the covert world of Laos, he wasn’t even supposed to be in the country. He always said that he would someday return to Laos as a tourist, but he knew better than to hold his breath.  Laos was small, manageable, and beautiful, so he always said he would someday return as a tourist.

Now he was in an isolated region of Laos, controlled by someone he only knew by his name. Landed not far from there and wanted to see if the temple was still there, he had to do something to kill time. Because everything didn’t always work out smoothly, he had time to kill.

Thinking about time he’d spent in Laos, Jack couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t drawn a short straw. He was used to drawing short straws.  He was used to getting dangerous assignments, so he respected fear. And this was one of those times … when he was short everything … short of information, short of light, and short of ideas.  But more than anything else he didn’t have control of his situation.  If he didn’t have so much time he would feel better.

Now there were a few places that he was itching to get back to. They all had their appeal, and that was why he kept going back to them. So when he got back to Udorn, he was heading for Bangkok. He hadn’t lost anything in Bangkok, but he certainly had in Manila. For obvious reasons, he preferred Bangkok to Hong Kong and Manila. It was time for a little R&R, past time, and he aimed to get some as soon as he got back to Udorn. Jack luckily didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. He could just go. But on this day he was more concerned about getting off a mountaintop.

He was killing time, when he didn’t have time to spare. It wasn’t his choice and as usual he was waiting on other people. He was used to it. People were rarely on time. Today, with a greater distance to cover than usual, timing was crucial.

Like all Ravens, all volunteers, Jack carried no identification. So there would be no way of identifying him if he were captured, which meant his family wouldn’t know what happened to him. So he was careful, very careful.

It was early afternoon, and he couldn’t wait to get back to Udorn. There was nothing waiting for him in Udorn, but he still wanted to get back. He volunteered, knowing risks involved, but there was nothing worse than the idea of getting captured.

Back in Udorn Jack would sip cold drinks and swap stories with old cronies in khaki bush shirts and trousers. Although they were old hands (a lot of them fought in Korea), they always had new stories to tell. This year the dry season was unusually hot. There was no mistaking it, although Jack tried to remain cool. He was cool under fire: that was why he was recruited.

There was nothing special about this Buddha.  He had seen others like it.  Of course it was a copy of a copy.  All Buddhas were copies.  It was covered with gold in lay like other Buddhas he had seen. They were the same everywhere. And he? Why had he taken time out to see it? He naturally felt restless and not in the mood for seeing sites. He usually didn’t.  Too often he did parachute drops, which meant he didn’t get a chance.  He usually didn’t take chances.

He left the temple and jogged back to the landing zone. So far so good.  It wouldn’t be long now before he would be picked up.

Jack thought that beauty of Laos was most evident from the air … with thick forests and rugged mountains, and a few plains and plateaus. You felt like you were in a tropical Colorado, with the highest peak higher than 9, 000 feet, and that’s high for the tropics. There was now massive bombing in Laos near the Vietnam border. Everything now depended on Vietnam, and Jack was often expected to come to the rescue of people trapped on mountaintops. So it was logical that he would be waiting.

How long would he wait?  How long could he wait?  He would know more when he saw a small plane circling.   So he was glad to see that some of them had arrived, women, children, and elderly men mostly … he was glad he could help … and when he reached the edge of the landing zone he saw there was no plane or a pilot helping them.  They were waiting as he was waiting.  It was dicey, and it remained dicey while they waited for plane.

To be honest, Jack volunteered more for excitement than for money, and he wasn’t disappointed. From dodging bullets to dodging ridge lines, it was never dull. Runways were rarely paved and never long enough, and planes narrowly missed top of trees more times than not.  It was always a miracle when they got off the ground.

To connect scattered Hmong outposts separated by mountains, the CIA built a chain of landing zones, and Jack knew each of them.  Some were better than others, but most weren’t level because  people who built them didn’t have adequate equipment. Sometimes they were refueled with buckets. It was unbelievable that there weren’t more crashes.  Near crashes loomed in Jack’s memory.  In many respects it was an unforgiving profession, if you could call it a profession.  Weather was often a factor, and there were no air traffic control or navigational systems. Yet pilots flew with confidence.

Moving among his Hmong fighters, he could see that many of them were young boys and that many of them already bore scars. This was an army they relied on, and it seemed to Jack that they should be in school instead of fighting in the jungle. These were the fighters who would come to his rescue. They were also the ones left behind when Americans left and his colleagues were pulled out of Laos.

The Hmong weren’t the only ones left behind. Jack was caught up in the accelerated exit, and he couldn’t pick up pieces of his life or face ghosts that haunted him. It hit him like a thunderclap when someone he loved was taken away from him. He wasn’t ready.  He wasn’t ready for it.  Jack didn’t know if he would ever be ready to accept responsibility for a child he left behind in Manila.  How old was she now? He didn’t want to think about her because when he did it brought back painful and sad memories.

Penny had to sneak off. Her grandmother was very protective and wouldn’t have approved of her going to Ongpin Street. Penny’s grandmother knew the risks. Penny’s grandmother knew the risks for a young woman on Ongpin Street, but Penny thought she knew what she was doing.  She was mature and didn’t have to dress provocative to look sexy. Neither was she careless in her dress or in the way she presented herself, because she didn’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.  Penny was not an Ongpin prostitute.

She went to Ongpin Street looking for Americans, looking for Americans on R&R Penny explained. And yet she wasn’t a prostitute.  And she was also looking for a specific prostitute.  There would be Americans on Ongpin Street, there would be American men looking for women there, she rambled on as she explained why she went to Ongpin Street. Wandering around, she didn’t want to stand out because she didn’t want to look like a prostitute. As a young woman pretending to be shopping, she looked as if she had fixed roots.  And it fit her personality because she was curious about all sorts of things. She explained, “I won’t give up until I find them or find out what happened to them.”

But Penny didn’t know where to look on Ongpin Street.  She knew her mother was on Ongpin Street, but she didn’t know where to look for her.  Not because her mother was hiding from her … not that her father was hiding from her … that wouldn’t have occurred to them … it was something worse.  Penny thought it had to be something far worse.  They forgot about her.  They dropped her off at her grandmother’s house and forgot about her; Penny was sure of it.  Penny thought they forgot about her because they were trying to put their past behind them.  They didn’t want to be reminded of something, and it was just possible, if they acknowledged her, they would have to acknowledge it.  But what was it?

What was the reason?  What was the reason they dropped Penny off at her grandmother’s house and forgot about her?  Or seemly forgot her?  What happened?  Did her father not want to be tied down with a child?  Did her mother not want to be tied down with a child?  You know how that goes.  It was the same in the Philippines as anyplace else.  So Penny went to Ongpin Street every day.

And Penny’s grandmother never said anything about her disapproval of Penny’s father. What memories Penny had of him were pleasant, but then tragedy struck, and she was deprived of both parents. What happened?  Where were they?  Why was she drawn to Ongpin Street?  It was something her grandmother said.  Something she overheard.  Something she wasn’t supposed to hear.  All Penny had to go on was a picture of her parents, the three of them she always carried with her.  All she had to remind her of her parents was an old, crinkled photograph.

Now sitting in a cramped jeepney on her way to Ongpin Street. she knew that she couldn’t turn back. Now sitting in a cramped jeepney she knew she couldn’t bring her father back.  He was an American and was no doubt in America.  Still she headed for Ongpin Street hoping to find her father and mother. She headed for Ongpin Street because she thought she might find her father there.  She headed for Ongpin Street because she thought she might see her mother there.  She wanted to talk to her mother.  She wanted to be with her father.  She headed for Ongpin Street because she would find American men there.  But was she kidding herself?  Out of all American men who came to Manila what were her chances of finding her father?  And where would she start, start looking for her mother?  And her father wasn’t in the military.  How would she know where to start?  Why did Ongpin Street come to mind?

Ongpin Street!  Anyway, she thought she could handle herself. She had been to Ongpin Street before, with her grandmother and on her own.  She had been to Ongpin Street many times.  She had explored all the side streets and alleyways off Ongpin Street.  Penny was the essence of carefreeness when she walked through Ongpin Street, as she bought a few things, as she shopped for gold that she didn’t buy, as she was tempted by Eng Bee Tin (a famous Chinese delicacy) … and finally bought kinds of fruit she couldn’t buy anyplace else in Manila.  But she tried to avoid tenacious venders who competed for her attention.  Then after a visit to Binondo Church (an excuse she used for going to Ongpin Street), something always drew her to a specific alleyway.  She didn’t know what it was, but there something about a specific alleyway that reminded her of mother and father.  And there was a specific doorway that she seemed to remember.  She often approached the door but was always too afraid to knock.  Whenever she watched this doorway, she often saw American men come and go.  More than once Penny resisted entering this doorway.  Then one day, while sitting and praying in the back of Binondo Church she heard the voices of her mother and father say, “Tell the world we’re dead.”  Penny told her grandmother.

GIs could choose to go to Bangkok, Manila, or Hong Kong for R&R.  More chose Bangkok than Hong Kong or Manila.  More chose Bangkok because they had one thing in mind.  If a Filipina were seen with an American male, she was most often seen as a prostitute.  And with her father, Penny’s was prepared to pay the cost.  With her father, she was willing risk it.

When Penny’s father left Manila, Penny’s mother’s world collapsed.  She felt she had little chance or no chance of seeing her lover again, little chance or no chance of seeing Penny’s father again but to go to Ongpin Street and contact American men, or so she thought.  Only then did she feel she had a chance of running into him again.  He was part of the war effort.  She knew he was part of the war effort.  He may not have been a GI, but he was part of the war effort.  There was a secret there.  She knew there was secret there.  She knew it.

The chemistry was there from the start. He liked her.  He knew it instantly.  She knew it too.  She knew men and knew instantly that he liked her.  He began by talking abstractly about America when she wanted to know specifics. She was full of questions. Jack was from Indiana.  He didn’t like talking about Indiana.  She wanted to know everything about Indiana.  Every time he told her something, he felt disappointed that she didn’t see how it affected him. Otherwise they got along.

And as they talked, with opposite agendas, they couldn’t avoid what brought them together. As for war, peace was nowhere in sight … mistakes were being made, people questioned why so many boys were dying, and the lack of practice didn’t make Americans good losers.  They thought they were good lovers.  He became a regular.  He wasn’t a brute.

He heard that the Philippines had beautiful women. Here was a beautiful woman, and she didn’t look like other prostitutes.  He wondered why she was one.  He fell in love with her, and he took her out of a brothel down an alleyway off Ongpin Street.   At first he didn’t allow himself to think that she was a prostitute.  Yet he found her working in a brothel off Ongpin Street.  That would’ve bothered him. He didn’t understand why it didn’t.  Maybe there was no such thing as a pure Filipina.

She never had to paint or powder her face like other prostitutes did. Men found her attractive without her doing anything. It wouldn’t have been the case had she come from China. In those days, conversations were brief. Bargaining was quick.  A quickie was cheap.   After choosing someone on the spot, some men then convince themselves that they had bought true love.  In their mind there was an affinity between love and slavery, where love meant possessiveness. Then how many women surrendered and thought they were free?  But in Penny’s mother’s case, here was a woman who listened to her inner voice and didn’t worry about powdering her face.  When she didn’t have a customer, Penny’s mother looked out a window down an alleyway off Ongpin Street.  She looked out a window, watching who came and went.  She watched many people come and go, and most of them were Philippine women (women she knew) escorting American men.  Every day she looked out the window, and she recognized Penny when she saw her.  She recognized Penny, and it worried her.  And what would she do had Penny entered the front door?

Jack was disgusted with how the war was going … defeat would look the same in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In October of 1974, Dr. Henry Kissinger said to a journalist, “It is difficult to win on the negotiating table what you have lost on the battlefield.”  Constant fog draped many of the jungle peaks; and perhaps fog obscured war to such an extent that the young lady would never find what and who she was looking for.

“At 1430 hours, Fire Support Base 31 received an attack. Six airborne troops killed, three wounded and one bulldozer damaged. On the following day, towards noon, Fire Support Base 31 fell under an attack again. This time by 122-mm rockets. Killed two and wounded four.” Whenever he tried to forget the war, something reminded him of it. It had always been a balancing act: forgetting and remembering. Now he wasn’t thinking about himself. He wasn’t thinking.

In this special American, everyone played basketball and everyone made lay-ups. In American there was a gas station on every corner, and her grandfather own one of them.

“The V.C. enjoyed the underbrush and could disappear anytime. That meant that we were never safe. They were in every village; and we may have thought that we were tightening a noose, but we never knew when we were walking into a trap. More and more we relied on our fighting instinct. Superior soldiers have to respect a den of ants.”

They knew that they’d never see each other again. But why was this so certain? Perhaps it was because both of them knew realities of war.  Did he want to make a career out of war?  But was he prepared for defeat?

Alpha never showed. What now, Cisco? Why, how now!”

In a driving rainstorm, a chopper flew him out for R & R. In flight didn’t they trace the Laotian border and see the trail? He was sorry to have to tell Penny’s mother that he wasn’t coming back to Manila.   “No, he didn’t see the trail”. He really didn’t want to talk about war, and what he gave her was a cleaned up version of a noisy, dirty, dangerous hell.

Some veterans talked about Operation Ranch Hand and the effects of herbicides. Not that any of them could give Penny information she wanted, or they wouldn’t say they knew they knew Jack.   “Many who thought they could close their eyes looked in vain in the wrong direction. Throughout war, if you spent too much spent time in Charlie-Med, you wouldn’t want to see anymore.”

“All You Need Is Love.” It was a song that struck an accord.

Jack survived days of around-the-clock shelling and waiting for death.  And Jack didn’t want to talk about it.  Non-stopped shelling … this from an enemy that was beaten into the ground by 35,000 tons of bombs. Giant B-52 Stratofortresses emptied their payloads every three hours, twenty-four hours a day. Jack’s nerves were shot. And Penny’s mother kept pushing him until he exploded.

Here was Jack trying to forget war, as it was fought just six clicks from the Laotian border, when Penny’s mother kept pushing him until he pushed her away.  And Penny didn’t know it.

He told her that Canada would’ve been a better option for him. “Considering the effectiveness of Agent Orange and napalm, there’ll be little left of Vietnam. It was no prize to begin with. It’s been like trying to save a dead horse.”

A dead horse …  “Penny Lane” was quite possibly the best song ever written.  It became their song. “The pretty nurse was selling poppies from a tray, and felt as if she were in a play.”

The trouble with Penny’s mother was that she wouldn’t let go of something when she got it in her brain.

And then he plaintively sung, “I’d love to turn you on.” Against a backdrop of a diving plane, through his laughter he meant to say, “Look mom, no hands!”

Maybe her father would show up for her birthday. Or send her a card or something. What was wrong with hoping?

“Now tell me should we cheer?”

In the thick of it…. “Requesting permission to fire on 803513…. Receiving small arms and mortar fire…. Taking causalities …. repeat, requesting permission to fire…. can you send aircraft?”

But none came.

“Tell the world I’m dead.”

Randy Ford

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Randy Ford Author- HOME FROM THE LAND OF OZ Snapshot of history April 2016

HOME FROM THE LAND OF OZ

by Randy Ford

On his way back to the United States, Jack thought about his father and could see him working himself to death. If he’d still been in Laos, he would’ve been too busy to think of his old man. In Vientiane he hadn’t kept up with events in Richmond. Now he was going home, a place he’d hardly recognize.

He knew he had changed and knew his perspective had changed too. He’d been thinking about his hometown since he heard about the explosion and fire that destroyed practically all of it. And he knew about the bypass and the Interstate … which is to say he expected changes. Dead, his father had died of a heart attack, and Jack didn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to him.

Since he’d been gone so long, he was surprised by his reaction to the news. Now the gas station would have to be sold. He knew his mother couldn’t/wouldn’t run it. About the changes along I-70 his father could’ve said plenty. He had lived those changes. But now he was dead, and life goes on.

It was something he thought he could always count on. Richmond, blown off the map! A good place to raise a family, or so his father thought. Jack could feel the boy inside him, and from this perspective he had judged and misjudged his father. He now had that to fall back on. He knew that his father earned a good living. Was respected. Reliable. Religious. Righteous. Made mistakes. His father had made mistakes with him. Who didn’t make mistakes? He assumed that his father regretted his mistakes, but how could he know for sure?

Yes, he loved his father, if conditional love counted, but his father’s countless customers knew him better than Jack did. It was his mother’s contention that if he hadn’t put his heart and soul into the station, he wouldn’t have stayed in business. Especially after the Interstate, the bypass, and the fire. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t make mistakes.

How like his dad was Jack? Perhaps he was more like him than he liked to admit. Jack’s taste these days included Hank Williams, and he knew that his father liked Hank Williams. He pictured him dying singing “Arkansas Traveler”. Later his mother asked him, “Would you consider me a traitor if I told that I don’t care for Hank Williams?”

It was all coming back to him now … you need a place to call home, but first you have to go away to realize it, he thought, as he sat on the plane. He was on an indirect flight to Indianapolis, during the final approach of the flight. Normally he wouldn’t be looking out the window. Indiana; the entire state, absorbing the landscape, basically flat. Farm land, farms. US 40 linking Greenfield, Indianapolis, Brazil, and Terre Haute. Hurrah, hurrah, yuck! Why Richmond Indiana? Jack didn’t know why his parents chose to live there.

Most of the destruction of the town came from the fire after the explosion. Fourteen blocks leveled, and Jack viewed the devastation differently than the rest of his family did. He had seen more of the world than they had. He had seen war, the devastation of war, and viewed the devastation of Richmond from that perspective. They’d soon be landing, and where had he come from? Oz. All the way home from the Land of Oz. From the Land of Oz to Richmond Indiana. And what could he tell them? Nothing. Luckily he wouldn’t be expected to say much. The timing was wrong, and perhaps it always would be wrong. And officially, he wasn’t working in Laos.

Subterfuge has its virtue. He’d have to make up some things. A man with a talent for subterfuge was valuable in his line of work, and he was considered one of the best. He looked for ways to explain what he did for living without giving away too much. As far as they knew he worked for an import/export firm and lived and worked in Bangkok. There was logic to this. It gave him cover and a place to come and go from.

Jack didn’t understand why he hurried home. He caught the first flight he could after hearing about his father’s death. Was it so that he could see his father’s lifeless body, someone he hadn’t seen grow old? He normally wouldn’t have responded with such haste. Normally he would’ve taken his time and done things right. There was no time this time. There was no thinking involved. He just had to let his boss know and buy his tickets. He forgot his toothbrush.

Should he rush some more or relax while he could? He’d have to rent a car and decided to take old U.S. 40 instead of Interstate 70. He knew everyone was waiting for him. He felt testy, impatient, and soon gave up on U.S. 40.

When was it ever worse? When you’re heading somewhere you don’t want to go to but you don’t have a choice. You always have a choice, don’t you? It was not the loss of his father that bothered him; it was the lack of communication with him while he was alive that hurt the most. Would people have nice things to say about him, as nice as the things he was sure they’d say about his father? He hoped he’d be remembered. He hoped to see a few old friends.

Oh, dear, bitterness was to heighten the family’s grief. Somebody was responsible. Heart attacks have causes. “Dear friends, the main dangers we face lurk in our hearts. Pray, where has this man’s soul gone? Do we know? Was he as much a churchgoer as his wife was? The Holy Ghost anoints men of God and doesn’t speak at all to others. Let us think about that.” Did it really matter? Not all of them found the minister’s sermon appropriate.

Now out of the blue Jack’s father died from a massive heart attack. The few moments that Jack stood in front of the fancy draped casket certainly didn’t add up to much when he considered how long it took him to get there. He was glad he came though because of his mother.

Against this backdrop the minister praised the man who dedicated his life to a gas station, namely how he bucked a trend and pumped gas, checked oil, fixed flats, and did mechanical work. Yes. As if it had been God’s work. Supposedly you couldn’t find a more under-appreciated man. Luckily he had a heart attack, and the day never came when Jack’s father couldn’t work. Who could ask for more?

The more time Jack spent with his mother the more awkward it became. And while he was in Richmond, he made the rounds and saw a few old friends. To see how they hadn’t changed was as devastating as anything else. He was careful not to say anything that would upset them. He had learned to be careful. But he could see that they weren’t interested in where he’d been or what he had done. No, it was if they had never heard of Laos … and shouldn’t he have considered it a good thing considering? Yes, he had to be careful even when people didn’t seem to give a damn about what he was doing. A grasp of what was going on was more than he should’ve expected. He’d learned to lower his expectations and had also learned to keep his mouth shut. He couldn’t say that he was working in Laos, when Vientiane was a cheap tourist destination, on the Mekong right across from Thailand. He couldn’t talk about the great French food or the massive US Embassy.

God knows why it mattered when they didn’t know what was going on in Laos and when they were preoccupied with the war in Vietnam. They were either for or against the war. Maybe they would have heard of the Plain of Jars but putting it all together would’ve been a stretch for them.

Too often when he thought about his job, Jack brooded upon whether he was doing any good or not. He was beginning to think that much of his work hadn’t amounted to much. Flying planes through the night to remote places would’ve offered some excitement if it hadn’t become so routine. Aspects of it were dangerous. Missions failed like engines did. He’d lost friends. That was the reality he faced … the cost … and it was the great secret of a world that relished secrets.

Was it fair to ask who made up the rules? “Made up” … made-up rules seemed like an apt way to put it. Most of the isolated villages could only be reached by air or on foot. To end up in the wrong camp was often disastrous. There was no protocol. People were often confused … confused by design …and error and treachery were the norm. The beauty of the operation was that it hadn’t cost much … comparatively. In proportion to the number of Americans working in the Land of Oz, the number of American causalities hadn’t been great. It was important to stress that there was never a full accounting. President Kennedy was dead, and LBJ’s photo was now hanging in the U.S Embassy. People who thought policies would change were sadly disappointed. If anything, activity had increased. For instance, the clasped-hand symbol of the U.S. Aid Mission to Laos found its way on everything from ceiling fans to gasoline cans.

The chore fell to his airline. Dressed in blue jeans and frequently armed with only a plastic badge, Jack had to use his wits to get himself out of trouble. It was well known that the imperialists were a heroic bunch.

Out of necessity information about Jack’s missions had to remain sketchy. He accepted that. He believed it. They weren’t supposed to be in Laos. But, then he wondered how big a secret it really was. Secrets couldn’t be compromised. The one thing that could be said was that we weren’t talking about child’s play. Concerning the children, he regretted the stories of massacres and the squalor of refugee camps. For a man who later stood helplessly by, there were personal reasons for signing on.

The money was good. He could say he chose the work for the money. He never in his wildest dreams could’ve imagined making so much money, and for that kind of money he would’ve gone to bed with almost anybody. So he took the job. Then instead of the money, he became addicted to adrenal, and it became his drug of choice. It was what kept him going back for more. By every conceivable measure, he was hooked.

He had worked for the last year and half, therefore, flying over invisible lines, landing on mountaintops and in jungle clearings … in the most dangerous places imaginable … to save the world from communism. That was what the brass wanted him to believe. Extracting a reliable explanation was difficult, but there had to be one or why else was he involved? Forget the money.

Now, after the Americans came, killing had become necessary in The Land of Oz. Yet it was impossible to dislike the place or it’s people. Jack would never forget the friends he made there and would later feel guilty for abandoning them. These feelings would become part of his makeup.

When he saw his old high school buddies, he heard the worst about the war in Vietnam. It was all over the news and divided the country. Yet he couldn’t tell anyone that he was part of it. He had a long talk with his mother. She said what he expected her to say. She said she hoped he wasn’t involved in drugs. He reassured her that he wasn’t. He wasn’t sure she believed him. He saw that in the way she looked at him. As far as she knew he lived and worked in Bangkok. He couldn’t tell her that his worse crime was transporting refugees. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt if he did because everyone knew there were refugees in Thailand. But he didn’t work in Thailand.

His sister Margo asked him more questions than anyone else in the family. She wanted to know if he had a girlfriend. Let’s say he disappointed her. He wasn’t into LSD, and her long absent brother couldn’t risk having a long-distance relationship. Why would he want to risk it? And his sister didn’t really want to hear about his sexual escapades in Bangkok. It just wasn’t something you talked about with your sister. The whole time Jack wished that he were back in Vientiane, where over a good French meal he could complain to his buddies about absolutely nothing. They were forbidden to talk about their missions. But they loved to complain, so they complained about nothing. Absolutely nothing. And in their line of work they knew to avoid strangers and to avoid wearing their hearts on their sleeves. In the Land of Oz, it varied how long someone stayed in country. Those who wore Rolex and Secko watches and gold heavy chains usually stayed longer than military personal.

Jack couldn’t believe that there were still a few battered souls like him left … that they all hadn’t been replaced by twenty-one year old recruits … or why he stuck it out. There seemed to be a likely connection between that and why he ran away from Richmond when he was boy. Or why whatever it was transcended ideology. Margo couldn’t have understood this. So he avoided certain topics with her.

His mother was just happy to have both of her kids home and didn’t say anything to spoil it. Result: a lot of silence. Yet she saw the wrinkles in her son’s brow and asked him why he frowned all the time. He wasn’t aware that he frowned and tried to smile. But he didn’t quite pull it off.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the Indiana he preferred was the Indiana before the interstate and realized that he’d been away too long to appreciate it in any other way. You see, he wasn’t like his father, who had a place where he belonged a place no one could take away from him. It didn’t matter to him that the interstate bypassed the town and hurt his business. He needed to slow down anyway, as he grew older. Then he was stopped in his tracks by a heart attack and the worst of it was that Jack had been deprived of an opportunity to set it right with him. No good for understanding why he ran away in the first place.

Tears didn’t come easily for him. He was like his father in that way. So he didn’t cry. So. So he didn’t listen to his old man. He wasn’t at liberty to say what he did for a living … that he’d learned how fly … that he now flew … and worked with refugees. If he allowed himself he’d be in a world of hurt over feelings he wasn’t supposed to have because he was like his dad and never learned how to cry. There was something there, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He swore that he wasn’t into drugs, but he wasn’t sure if his mother believed him. Not into drugs, and home from the Land of Oz. Where?

They placed his father in the finest hardwood casket. Nothing else would’ve satisfied him. Friends and neighbors brought food to the home, casseroles and pies, etc. Now the question arose what to do with all that food.

Randy Ford

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Randy Ford Author- Revised R&R

Randy Ford Author- Revised R&R

Jack went back to the temple where he saw a reclining Buddha lying down and welcoming death, and it seemed smaller than he remembered it. He rarely went back to tourist sites, but this site hadn’t been accessible since the war began. Still it hadn’t been neglected.

Jack hadn’t planned to go inside the temple because he hadn’t planned to be in the region, which said as much about his situation as anything. He never knew where he’d be sent. In the covert world of Laos he wasn’t even supposed to be in the country. He always said that he’d someday return to Laos as a tourist, but he knew better than to hold his breath.

Now he was in an isolated region of Laos, controlled by someone he only knew by his first name. Landed not far from there and wanted to see if the temple was still there. He had to do something to kill time. Because everything didn’t always work out smoothly he had time to kill.

Thinking about the time he’d spent in Laos, Jack couldn’t remember a time when he hadn’t drawn the short stick. He was used to getting dangerous assignments, so he respected fear. And this was one of those times … when he was short everything … short of information, short of light, and short of a place to land and take off. But more than anything else he didn’t have control of the situation.

Now there were a few places that he was itching to get back to. They all had their appeal, and that was why he kept going back to them. So when he got back to Udorn he was heading for Bangkok. He hadn’t lost anything in Bangkok, but he certainly had in Manila. For obvious reasons, he preferred Bangkok to Hong Kong and Manila. It was time for a little R&R, past time, and he aimed to get some as soon as he got back to Udorn. Jack luckily didn’t have to ask anyone’s permission. He could just take off. But on this day he was more concerned about getting off a mountaintop.

He was killing time, when he didn’t have time to spare. It wasn’t his choice and as usual he was waiting on other people. He’d gotten used to it. People were rarely on time. Today, with a greater distance to cover than usual, timing was crucial.

Like all Ravens, American pilots, all volunteers, Jack carried no identification. So there would be no way of identifying him if he were shot down, which meant his family wouldn’t know what happened to him. So he had to be careful.

It was early afternoon, and he couldn’t wait to get back to Udorn. There was nothing particular waiting for him in Udorn, but he still wanted to get back. He loved flying, unrestricted flying, so he didn’t relish the thought of being stuck on the ground. He volunteered, knowing the risks and that he’d have to transport food and medicine and refugees, but there was nothing worse than coming under fire on the ground and losing a plane.

Back in Udorn Jack would sip cold drinks and swap stories with old cronies in khaki bush shirts and trousers. Although they were old hands (a lot of them fought in Korea), they always had new stories to tell. This year the dry season was unusually hot. There was no mistaking it, although Jack tried to remain cool. He was cool under fire: that was why he was recruited.

There was nothing special about the Buddha. It of course was a copy of a copy that hadn’t been inlayed with gold like other Buddhas he’d seen. They were basically the same everywhere. And he? Why had he taken time out to see it? He naturally felt restless and not in the mood for seeing the sites. He usually never left his plane. They were all big on security, so he didn’t get many chances to exercise. And too often he did parachute drops, which meant he didn’t get a chance then either.

He left the temple and jogged back to the landing strip. So far so good, for there was now activity around the STOL airplane. It wouldn’t be long now before he could take off.

Jack thought that the beauty of Laos was that it was small and its capital was manageable. It was beautiful from the air … with thick forests and rugged mountains, and a few plains and plateaus. You felt like you were in a tropical Colorado, with the highest peak higher than 9, 000 feet, and that’s high for the tropics. There was now massive bombing in Laos near the Vietnam border. Everything now depended on Vietnam, and Jack was often expected to come to the rescue of people trapped on mountaintops. So it was logical that he would be waiting for human cargo, and waiting logically because he couldn’t land on a nearby mountain.

He’d know more about the cargo once he saw the people. So he was glad to see that some of them had arrived, women, children, and elderly men mostly … he was glad he could help … and when he reached the edge of the airstrip he was relieved to see that his co-pilot was helping them climb onto the plane.

Jack was both astute and athletic, so he ran to the plane and helped his co-pilot. When they reached their weight capacity, there were still more people waiting to board. It was always sad when they didn’t have enough room, and Jack always hoped that it wasn’t too late for those he left behind. It was such a dicey situation that Jack never knew.

To be honest, Jack volunteered more for the excitement than for the money, and he wasn’t disappointed. From dodging bullets to dodging ridgelines, it never let up. Runways were rarely paved and never long enough, and Jack narrowly missed the top of trees this time. With the plane overloaded it was a miracle. Yet he would’ve felt like a fool had he crashed.

To connect scattered Hmong outposts separated by mountains, the CIA had built a chain of airstrips, and Jack had flown into each one of them. Some were better than others, but most of them weren’t very level because the people who built them didn’t have adequate equipment. Sometimes at mountain airstrips, they were refueled with buckets. It was unbelievable that there weren’t more crashes than they were. Near crashes loomed in his memory each time Jack took off from one of these landing strips. In many respects it was an unforgiving profession. The weather was often a significant factor, and there were no air traffic control or navigational systems. Yet Jack flew with confidence.

Moving among his Hmong fighters he could see that many of them were young boys and that many of them already bore scars. This was the army they relied on, and it seemed to Jack that they should’ve been in school instead of fighting in the jungle. These were the fighters who would come to his rescue if he crashed. They were also the ones left behind when the dominos fell and Jack and his colleagues were pulled out of Laos.

The Hmong weren’t the only ones left behind. Jack was caught up in the accelerated exit and he couldn’t pick up all of the pieces of his life or face ghosts that haunted him. It hit him like a thunderclap when someone he loved was taken away from him. He wasn’t ready and didn’t know if he’d ever be ready to accept responsibility for a child he left behind in Manila. How old would she be now? He didn’t want to think about her because when he did it brought back painful and sad memories of her mother.

She had to sneak off. Penny’s grandmother was very protective and wouldn’t have approved of her going to Ongpin Street. She knew the risks but considered herself a big girl. She was mature and didn’t have to dress provocative to look sexy. Neither was she careless in her dress or in the way she presented herself, because she didn’t want to be mistaken for a prostitute.

She went to Ongpin Street to talk to American GIs, Penny explained. There would be American GIs hanging out around Ongpin Street, there would be American GIs looking for women there, she rambled on as she explained why she went to Ongpin Street. Standing on a corner, she stood out because she didn’t look like a prostitute. As a young lady with fixed roots, she was curious about all sorts of things. She explained, “I won’t give up until I find him.”

But Penny didn’t know where to look for her father. Not because he was hiding from her … that wouldn’t have occurred to him … it was something far worse. He forgot about her because he was trying to put his past behind him. He didn’t want to be reminded of it, and it was just possible, if he acknowledged her, he’d have to acknowledge the part he played in her mother’s death.

“The real reason, sir, was that he didn’t want to be tied down with a child. You know how that goes?” He knew … had to have known because he was a responsible adult, but Penny didn’t know how he felt. What if he hadn’t wanted to fly? What if there hadn’t been a war? If Penny had stopped to think she would’ve realized that he left the Philippines before the war. She was going to be eighteen soon, which meant that she didn’t need to listen to her grandmother. She couldn’t wait to be eighteen when she’d be considered an adult. She was confident, very confident. There wasn’t any doubt in her mind about her ability to handle herself. It was only a question of her age, since she was mature and didn’t want to hurt her grandmother. It was her grandmother who raised her. Now she was going against everything her grandmother taught her, but if this stunned people, maybe they didn’t know there was a precedent. Penny’s mother was no angel.

This was never discussed. It seemed like her grandmother had modified the story for her benefit. And she never said anything about her disapproval of Penny’s father. What memories Penny had of him were pleasant, but then tragedy struck, and she was deprived of both parents. Now sitting in a cramped jeepney on her way to Ongpin Street she knew that she couldn’t turn back. She thought that she could find someone who knew her father and knew where to look for him. A hint of nervousness was detectable. She knew it wouldn’t be easy, but neither was remaining in the dark.

But she had to have been kidding herself. Out of all the GIs who came to Manila for R&R what were the chances of finding one who knew her father? And her father wasn’t in the military. Maybe she should’ve thrown up her hands before she wasted her time. He was dead for all she knew. There were thousands upon thousands of GIs, and she knew it. And many of those GIs would take advantage of a young Filipina, and she knew that too. She was prepared to be careless and wild, and she thought it would be worth it if there were a chance of finding her father. Anyway, she thought she could handle herself. She had been to Ongpin Street before (with her grandmother and on a scouting exhibition) and knew she that she didn’t have to commit herself if she didn’t want to. And maybe it was its seaminess that drew her to Ongpin Street.

Penny was the essence of carefreeness when she walked into a bar. Not that she was unconcerned about how she would be perceived. She never stopped to consider what she was doing, and there’s no doubt that she felt invincible. From out from behind the bar, the bartender approached her.

“May I help you?”

“I don’t think so.”

The bartender never left anything alone, and he knew that Penny didn’t belong in there. That didn’t matter. She was determined to follow through with her plan. There were other women who did belong in there, and they all looked at Penny. There was something unpleasant about the way they looked at her. But if she hadn’t gone in there, she wouldn’t have met her GI.

Yes, he saved her from the bartender. He almost didn’t come over to her table. He wouldn’t have noticed her had the bartender not given her a hard time.

GIs could choose to go to Bangkok, Manila, or Hong Kong for R&R. Colonel Schumaker began to explain it, as though by choosing Manila he had made a smart choice. Most of his buddies who had one thing on their minds chose Bangkok. He made it clear that he was looking for something else and that he could tell that Penny was a “nice girl.” It was as if they were meant for each other. They were both happy about it..

Yes, it was too good to be true. She also knew that he could be false. She’d disappoint him if he were. She wouldn’t sell herself, and he’d be disappointed, if he thought she would. But if she weren’t a prostitute, why was she there?

The chemistry was there from the start. He began by talking abstractly about America when she wanted to know specifics. She was full of questions. He could answer most of them, but he was more interested in her. He liked her. He knew it instantly.

She began asking him about the war. He didn’t want to talk about it. This was why she wanted to talk to a GI. He hated it. He never got away from it, so it was the last thing he wanted to talk about. So each time she brought up the war he grew more uncomfortable. Everytime he told her something, he felt disappointed that she didn’t see how it affected him. Otherwise they got along perfectly.

She knew that he couldn’t tell her anything specific about her father. She didn’t know enough to even ask specific questions about him. As far as she knew there hadn’t been any recent communication between him and her grandmother, and if there had been she wouldn’t necessarily have known it. She had no more to go on than his name.

He went along. He could see that she was obsessed. At that time it wouldn’t have occurred to him to say, “Penny, let’s talk about something else. I came to Manila to get away from the war,” which was the truth. He couldn’t say it because he was subject to the dictates of his desire.

And as they talked, with opposite agendas, they couldn’t avoid what brought them together. As for the war, peace was nowhere in sight … mistakes were being made, people questioned why so many boys were dying, and the lack of practice didn’t make Americans good losers … Colonel Schumaker noticed something about Penny’s mind that was the opposite of his. There was a singlemindedness about her that baffled him. He noticed that she wouldn’t easily let go of something once she got it in her head. Wanting to know everything about the war was one of those things. Another was, wanting to know about Indiana.

But the one thing that fascinated Colonel Schmaker about Penny more than anything else was that though she was a Filipina she reminded him of a girl back home. “You have fair skin.” This seemed unusual to him. Most Filipinas were darker. He’d always heard that the Philippines had beautiful women. Here was a beautiful woman, and she didn’t look like other Filipinas, and she had an American name. At first he didn’t allow himself to think that maybe she was a mixture. That would’ve bothered him. He didn’t understand. Maybe there was no such thing as a pure Filipina.

Penny never had to paint or powder her face like her grandmother did. Men found her attractive without her doing anything. It wouldn’t have been the case had she come from China like her grandmother did. In those days conversations were brief. Bargaining had to be quick. After having chosen someone on the spot, men had to then convince themselves that they had bought true love. In their mind there was an affinity between love and slavery, where love meant possessiveness. Then how many women surrendered and thought they were free? But in Penny’s case, here was a young lady who listened to her inner voice and didn’t have to worry about powdering her face.

He was disgusted with the way the war was going … defeat would look the same in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. In October of 1974, Dr. Henry Kissinger said to a journalist, “It is difficult to win on the negotiating table what you have lost on the battlefield.” Lose! Time was running out for Penny’s search. Constant fog draped many of the jungle peaks; and perhaps fog obscured the war to such an extent that the young lady would never find what and who she was looking for.

“What are you trying to do?” he asked.

“I’m looking for an American pilot named Jack. There must be a million American pilots named Jack.”

They went over all she knew about her father, while she wasn’t optimistic about finding him. She didn’t have enough information. He was from Indiana. She knew that much. Colonel Schumaker eyed her with astonishment. Was she nuts? Out of all of the Jacks who flew in Nam, how could she expect him to know her father? She didn’t even know if he was still flying. And he wasn’t in the military. There was no way that he could’ve narrowed it down, and she should’ve known it. It bugged Colonel Schumaker. He didn’t need to be bugged.

“At 1430 hours, Fire Support Base 31 received an attack. Six airborne troops killed, three wounded and one bulldozer damaged. On the following day, towards noon, Fire Support Base 31 fell under an attack again. This time by 122-mm rockets. Killed two and wounded four.” Whenever he tried to forget the war, something reminded him of it. It had always been a balancing act: forgetting and remembering. Now he wasn’t thinking about himself. He wasn’t thinking.

She had every reason to believe that there had been a conspiracy to keep her away from her father. At an early age she was shipped off to a Catholic boarding school, where they assumed she’d find herself. A course was mapped out for her, but she had no interest in following it. There wasn’t much they could tell her. She had already made up her mind that she wanted to live in America with her father. And she considered herself more American than Filipina. People in America were rich. Six and she already had her sights set on America, and she was waiting for the age when she could claim her citizenship. When you’re six you’re easily impressed. This was even more so for Penny. She thought that she could find in America what she lost in the Philippines. Anything was possible in America. She had grandparents somewhere over there. And an aunt named Margo. Bits and pieces of information fueled her imagination. Fragments made up her world, and she no doubt enjoyed them. In this special American, everyone played basketball and everyone made lay-ups. In American there was a gas station on every corner, and her grandfather own one of them.

The war was hours away by plane. Getting totally away from it proved impossible. A little R&R he hoped would help. Then he chose a girl who wouldn’t let him forget it. He hoped that it would help him shed, even for a little while, his sense of terror. Killing dulled the soldier’s feelings.

“The V.C. enjoyed the underbrush and could disappear anytime. That meant that we were never safe. They were in every village; and we may have thought that we were tightening a noose, but we never knew when we were walking into a trap. More and more we relied on our fighting instinct. Superior soldiers have to respect a den of ants.”

They knew that they’d never see each other again. But why was this so certain? Perhaps it was because both of them knew the realities of war. He wanted to make a career out of the Army and enlisted; but neither basic training nor OCS prepared him for Vietnam. The top of his class, Colonel Schumaker came out of it all psyched up. He was not only considered a good officer but a damn good man.

Due to how he related to his men, he was command material. He was highly trained, a tough son-of-a-bitch. Unfortunately sometimes he acted as if the whole shooting match was his private war. In short, Schumaker was simply your-best-dumb-shit ever, because of his gung-ho attitude. But according to him, the son-of-a-bitching war turned his country into a nation of pansies. “Nobody gives a rat’s ass anymore.”

Penny continued to pump Schumaker for information. She listened for specifics, which might relate to her father. As far as she knew, her dad could’ve been dead, because she knew he risked his ass in enemy territory near the Ho Chi Minh Trail. She suspected a conspiracy of silence.

Alpha never showed. What now, Cisco? Why, how now!”

In a driving rainstorm, a chopper flew Schumaker out for R & R. In flight didn’t they trace the Laotian border and see the trail? He was sorry to have to tell Penny “no, he didn’t see the trail”. He really didn’t want to talk about the war but she kept pushing him until he exploded, and what he gave her was a cleaned up version of a noisy, dirty, dangerous hell.

Some veterans talked about Operation Ranch Hand and the effects of herbicides. Not that any of them could give Penny the information she wanted. “Many who thought they could closed their eyes looked in vain in the wrong direction. Throughout the war, if you to spent time in Charlie-Med, you wouldn’t want to see anymore.”

Schumaker said, “We do what we’re trained to do. But regretfully we can no more chase the enemy until we destroy him than he can overrun us. Can we win? Do we know how to do it? For some of us, joining was kind of a John Wayne’ thing to do.”

“All You Need Is Love.” It was a song that struck an accord.

Colonel Schumaker had just survived days of around-the-clock shelling and waiting for death. This from an enemy that was beaten into the ground by 35,000 tons of bombs. Giant B-52 Stratofortresses emptied their payloads every three hours, twenty-four hours a day. Consequently his nerves were shot. And Penny kept pushing him until he exploded.

Here was Schumaker trying to forget the war, as it was fought just six clicks from the Laotian border, when Penny kept pushing him until he exploded and Penny didn’t know that Schumanker and her father had been no more than twelve clicks apart.

He told her that Canada would’ve been a better option for him. “Considering the effectiveness of Agent Orange and napalm, there’ll be little left of Vietnam. It was no prize to begin with. It’s been like trying to save a dead horse.”

A dead horse … ”Penny Lane” was quite possibly the best song ever written. It became their song. “The pretty nurse was selling poppies from a tray, and felt as if she were in a play.”

The trouble with Penny was that she wouldn’t let go of something when she got it in her brain.

And then he plaintively sung, “I’d love to turn you on.” Against a backdrop of a diving plane, through his laughter he meant to say, “Look mom, no hands!”

Maybe her father would show up for her birthday. Or send her a card or something. What was wrong with hoping?

“Now tell me should we cheer?”

In the thick of it…. “Requesting permission to fire on 803513…. Receiving small arms and mortar fire…. Taking causalities….repeat, requesting permission to fire….can you send aircraft?”

“But it’s just a tiny Cessna.

Randy Ford

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Randy Ford Author- Revised HOME FROM THE LAND OF OZ

Randy Ford Author- Revised HOME FROM THE LAND OF OZ
On his way back to the United States, Jack thought about his father and could see him working himself to death. If he’d still been in Laos, he would’ve been too busy to think of his old man. In Vientiane he hadn’t kept up with events in Richmond. Now he was going home, a place he’d hardly recognize.

He knew he had changed and knew his perspective had changed too. He’d been thinking about his hometown since he heard about the explosion and fire that destroyed practically all of it. And he knew about the bypass and the Interstate … which is to say he expected changes. Dead, his father had died of a heart attack, and Jack didn’t have an opportunity to say goodbye to him.

Since he’d been gone so long, he was surprised by his reaction to the news. Now the gas station would have to be sold. He knew his mother couldn’t/wouldn’t run it. About the changes along I-70 his father could’ve said plenty. He had lived those changes. But now he was dead, and life goes on.

It was something he thought he could always count on. Richmond, blown off the map! A good place to raise a family, or so his father thought. Jack could feel the boy inside him, and from this perspective he had judged and misjudged his father. He now had that to fall back on. He knew that his father earned a good living. Was respected. Reliable. Religious. Righteous. Made mistakes. His father had made mistakes with him. Who didn’t make mistakes? He assumed that his father regretted his mistakes, but how could he know for sure?

Yes, he loved his father, if conditional love counted, but his father’s countless customers knew him better than Jack did. It was his mother’s contention that if he hadn’t put his heart and soul into the station, he wouldn’t have stayed in business. Especially after the Interstate, the bypass, and the fire. But that didn’t mean that he didn’t make mistakes.

How like his dad was Jack? Perhaps he was more like him than he liked to admit. Jack’s taste these days included Hank Williams, and he knew that his father liked Hank Williams. He pictured him dying singing “Arkansas Traveler”. Later his mother asked him, “Would you consider me a traitor if I told that I don’t care for Hank Williams?”

It was all coming back to him now … you need a place to call home, but first you have to go away to realize it, he thought, as he sat on the plane. He was on an indirect flight to Indianapolis, during the final approach of the flight. Normally he wouldn’t be looking out the window. Indiana; the entire state, absorbing the landscape, basically flat. Farm land, farms. US 40 linking Greenfield, Indianapolis, Brazil, and Terre Haute. Hurrah, hurrah, yuck! Why Richmond Indiana? Jack didn’t know why his parents chose to live there.

Most of the destruction of the town came from the fire after the explosion. Fourteen blocks leveled, and Jack viewed the devastation differently than the rest of his family did. He had seen more of the world than they had. He had seen war, the devastation of war, and viewed the devastation of Richmond from that perspective. They’d soon be landing, and where had he come from? Oz. All the way home from the Land of Oz. From the Land of Oz to Richmond Indiana. And what could he tell them? Nothing. Luckily he wouldn’t be expected to say much. The timing was wrong, and perhaps it always would be wrong. And officially, he wasn’t working in Laos.

Subterfuge has its virtue. He’d have to make up some things. A man with a talent for subterfuge was valuable in his line of work, and he was considered one of the best. He looked for ways to explain what he did for living without giving away too much. As far as they knew he worked for an import/export firm and lived and worked in Bangkok. There was logic to this. It gave him cover and a place to come and go from.

Jack didn’t understand why he hurried home. He caught the first flight he could after hearing about his father’s death. Was it so that he could see his father’s lifeless body, someone he hadn’t seen grow old? He normally wouldn’t have responded with such haste. Normally he would’ve taken his time and done things right. There was no time this time. There was no thinking involved. He just had to let his boss know and buy his tickets. He forgot his toothbrush.

Should he rush some more or relax while he could? He’d have to rent a car and decided to take old U.S. 40 instead of Interstate 70. He knew everyone was waiting for him. He felt testy, impatient, and soon gave up on U.S. 40.

When was it ever worse? When you’re heading somewhere you don’t want to go to but you don’t have a choice. You always have a choice, don’t you? It was not the loss of his father that bothered him; it was the lack of communication with him while he was alive that hurt the most. Would people have nice things to say about him, as nice as the things he was sure they’d say about his father? He hoped he’d be remembered. He hoped to see a few old friends.

Oh, dear, bitterness was to heighten the family’s grief. Somebody was responsible. Heart attacks have causes. “Dear friends, the main dangers we face lurk in our hearts. Pray, where has this man’s soul gone? Do we know? Was he as much a churchgoer as his wife was? The Holy Ghost anoints men of God and doesn’t speak at all to others. Let us think about that.” Did it really matter? Not all of them found the minister’s sermon appropriate.

Now out of the blue Jack’s father died from a massive heart attack. The few moments that Jack stood in front of the fancy draped casket certainly didn’t add up to much when he considered how long it took him to get there. He was glad he came though because of his mother.

Against this backdrop the minister praised the man who dedicated his life to a gas station, namely how he bucked a trend and pumped gas, checked oil, fixed flats, and did mechanical work. Yes. As if it had been God’s work. Supposedly you couldn’t find a more under-appreciated man. Luckily he had a heart attack, and the day never came when Jack’s father couldn’t work. Who could ask for more?

The more time Jack spent with his mother the more awkward it became. And while he was in Richmond, he made the rounds and saw a few old friends. To see how they hadn’t changed was as devastating as anything else. He was careful not to say anything that would upset them. He had learned to be careful. But he could see that they weren’t interested in where he’d been or what he had done. No, it was if they had never heard of Laos … and shouldn’t he have considered it a good thing considering? Yes, he had to be careful even when people didn’t seem to give a damn about what he was doing. A grasp of what was going on was more than he should’ve expected. He’d learned to lower his expectations and had also learned to keep his mouth shut. He couldn’t say that he was working in Laos, when Vientiane was a cheap tourist destination, on the Mekong right across from Thailand. He couldn’t talk about the great French food or the massive US Embassy.

God knows why it mattered when they didn’t know what was going on in Laos and when they were preoccupied with the war in Vietnam. They were either for or against the war. Maybe they would have heard of the Plain of Jars but putting it all together would’ve been a stretch for them.

Too often when he thought about his job, Jack brooded upon whether he was doing any good or not. He was beginning to think that much of his work hadn’t amounted to much. Flying planes through the night to remote places would’ve offered some excitement if it hadn’t become so routine. Aspects of it were dangerous. Missions failed like engines did. He’d lost friends. That was the reality he faced … the cost … and it was the great secret of a world that relished secrets.

Was it fair to ask who made up the rules? “Made up” … made-up rules seemed like an apt way to put it. Most of the isolated villages could only be reached by air or on foot. To end up in the wrong camp was often disastrous. There was no protocol. People were often confused … confused by design …and error and treachery were the norm. The beauty of the operation was that it hadn’t cost much … comparatively. In proportion to the number of Americans working in the Land of Oz, the number of American causalities hadn’t been great. It was important to stress that there was never a full accounting. President Kennedy was dead, and LBJ’s photo was now hanging in the U.S Embassy. People who thought policies would change were sadly disappointed. If anything, activity had increased. For instance, the clasped-hand symbol of the U.S. Aid Mission to Laos found its way on everything from ceiling fans to gasoline cans.

The chore fell to his airline. Dressed in blue jeans and frequently armed with only a plastic badge, Jack had to use his wits to get himself out of trouble. It was well known that the imperialists were a heroic bunch.

Out of necessity information about Jack’s missions had to remain sketchy. He accepted that. He believed it. They weren’t supposed to be in Laos. But, then he wondered how big a secret it really was. Secrets couldn’t be compromised. The one thing that could be said was that we weren’t talking about child’s play. Concerning the children, he regretted the stories of massacres and the squalor of refugee camps. For a man who later stood helplessly by, there were personal reasons for signing on.

The money was good. He could say he chose the work for the money. He never in his wildest dreams could’ve imagined making so much money, and for that kind of money he would’ve gone to bed with almost anybody. So he took the job. Then instead of the money, he became addicted to adrenal, and it became his drug of choice. It was what kept him going back for more. By every conceivable measure, he was hooked.

He had worked for the last year and half, therefore, flying over invisible lines, landing on mountaintops and in jungle clearings … in the most dangerous places imaginable … to save the world from communism. That was what the brass wanted him to believe. Extracting a reliable explanation was difficult, but there had to be one or why else was he involved? Forget the money.

Now, after the Americans came, killing had become necessary in The Land of Oz. Yet it was impossible to dislike the place or it’s people. Jack would never forget the friends he made there and would later feel guilty for abandoning them. These feelings would become part of his makeup.

When he saw his old high school buddies, he heard the worst about the war in Vietnam. It was all over the news and divided the country. Yet he couldn’t tell anyone that he was part of it. He had a long talk with his mother. She said what he expected her to say. She said she hoped he wasn’t involved in drugs. He reassured her that he wasn’t. He wasn’t sure she believed him. He saw that in the way she looked at him. As far as she knew he lived and worked in Bangkok. He couldn’t tell her that his worse crime was transporting refugees. Perhaps it wouldn’t hurt if he did because everyone knew there were refugees in Thailand. But he didn’t work in Thailand.

His sister Margo asked him more questions than anyone else in the family. She wanted to know if he had a girlfriend. Let’s say he disappointed her. He wasn’t into LSD, and her long absent brother couldn’t risk having a long-distance relationship. Why would he want to risk it? And his sister didn’t really want to hear about his sexual escapades in Bangkok. It just wasn’t something you talked about with your sister. The whole time Jack wished that he were back in Vientiane, where over a good French meal he could complain to his buddies about absolutely nothing. They were forbidden to talk about their missions. But they loved to complain, so they complained about nothing. Absolutely nothing. And in their line of work they knew to avoid strangers and to avoid wearing their hearts on their sleeves. In the Land of Oz, it varied how long someone stayed in country. Those who wore Rolex and Secko watches and gold heavy chains usually stayed longer than military personal.

Jack couldn’t believe that there were still a few battered souls like him left … that they all hadn’t been replaced by twenty-one year old recruits … or why he stuck it out. There seemed to be a likely connection between that and why he ran away from Richmond when he was boy. Or why whatever it was transcended ideology. Margo couldn’t have understood this. So he avoided certain topics with her.

His mother was just happy to have both of her kids home and didn’t say anything to spoil it. Result: a lot of silence. Yet she saw the wrinkles in her son’s brow and asked him why he frowned all the time. He wasn’t aware that he frowned and tried to smile. But he didn’t quite pull it off.

The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the Indiana he preferred was the Indiana before the interstate and realized that he’d been away too long to appreciate it in any other way. You see, he wasn’t like his father, who had a place where he belonged a place no one could take away from him. It didn’t matter to him that the interstate bypassed the town and hurt his business. He needed to slow down anyway, as he grew older. Then he was stopped in his tracks by a heart attack and the worst of it was that Jack had been deprived of an opportunity to set it right with him. No good for understanding why he ran away in the first place.

Tears didn’t come easily for him. He was like his father in that way. So he didn’t cry. So. So he didn’t listen to his old man. He wasn’t at liberty to say what he did for a living … that he’d learned how fly … that he now flew … and worked with refugees. If he allowed himself he’d be in a world of hurt over feelings he wasn’t supposed to have because he was like his dad and never learned how to cry. There was something there, but he wasn’t quite sure what it was. He swore that he wasn’t into drugs, but he wasn’t sure if his mother believed him. Not into drugs, and home from the Land of Oz. Where?

They placed his father in the finest hardwood casket. Nothing else would’ve satisfied him. Friends and neighbors brought food to the home, casseroles and pies, etc. Now the question arose what to do with all that food.

Randy Ford

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Randy Ford Author- OUT OF THE LAND OF OZ Snapshot of history 1st Installment

      Jack could see his dad working himself to death.   He wondered if he would recognize the place.   He knew he had changed and knew his hometown had changed too.   He knew about the big fire, the bypass, and the Instate.   Changes aplenty.   Now his dad was gone.   Would the gas station be sold?   He knew his mother couldn’t/wouldn’t run it.   About the changes along I-40 the gas station owner could’ve said plenty.   He had lived those changes.   Now he was dead.   Life goes on.

       Certainly, he had relied on Richmond.   Yes, he dreamed and raised a family there.   Earned a good living.   Respected.   Reliable.   Religious. Righteous.   Made mistakes.   Who didn’t?   Regrets?   Jack wasn’t sure he had any.   Without knowing his father better, how would he know?   His countless customers knew him better.   If he hadn’t maintained his customer base, he wouldn’t have stayed in business.   Especially after the   Interstate, the Bypass, and the fire.   But that didn’t mean he was a talker.   How like his dad was Jack?   Could the son have known?

       It all came back to Jack…US 40, Greenfield, Indianapolis, Brazil, and Terre Haute.   The explosion really leveled the town, and the fire spread destruction for fourteen blocks.   But while it upset all of his family, Jack viewed the devastation in a different way than the rest of them did.   For one thing he had seen more of the world than the others had.   He had seen war.   He had been in Oz, and now he was back.   The Land of Oz and Richmond Indiana.   What could he say?   Luckily he wouldn’t be expected to say anything.   The timing was wrong, and perhaps it always would be. And officially, he hadn’t been in Laos.

       After a very long plane ride and losing a whole day, Jack wondered why he’d jumped on the first flight home.   Was it so he could see his father’s lifeless body, someone he hadn’t seen grow old?   He realized that he wasn’t that far behind.   Should he run faster, or slow down and wait for his time to come?   Would people have nice things to say about him, as nice as the things they said about his father?   You’d hope he’d be remembered.   You’d hope he’d have a few friends left.

       Bitterness was to heighten the family’s grief.   “Dear friends, the main dangers we face lurk in our hearts.   Pray, where has this man’s soul gone?   Do we know?   Was he as much a churchgoer as his wife was?   The Holy Ghost anoints men of God and doesn’t speak at all to others.   Let us think about that.”

       Now out of the blue Jack’s father had a massive heart attack.   The few moments that Jack stood in front of the fancy draped casket seemed as if it had been an eternity.   During the funeral, the preacher concentrated on how the man dedicated his life to a gas station, namely how he fought the trend and pumped gas, checked oil, fixed flats, and did mechanical work.   As if it had been God’s work.   Supposedly you couldn’t find a better Christian and a more under-appreciated man.   Luckily he had a heart attack, and the day never came when Jack’s father couldn’t work.     Who would’ve wanted that?

       The more time Jack spent with his mother the more awkward it became.   He’d learned to limit expressing his emotions.   Among the chief things they couldn’t talk about was where he’d been.   He couldn’t say that he’d been in Laos, when Vientiane was a cheap tourist destination, on the Mekong right across from Thailand.    He couldn’t talk about the great French food or the massive US Embassy.

       Too often, when thinking about his job, Jack became sorrowful, as if he’d been hurt.   “Much of my work hasn’t amounted to much.   Many missions failed, or almost failed.   I’ve lost friends, and many more will die.   That’s the sad reality of even a secret war.   Only when peace comes, will we know if it was worth it.”

       The scattered, isolated villages could only be reached by air or on foot.   To end up in the wrong camp was often ugly.   There were no set rules.   It hadn’t cost much.   In proportion to the number of Americans in the Land of Oz, American causalities hadn’t been that great.   It was important to stress that there was never a full accounting.   President Kennedy was dead, and LBJ’s photo was now hanging in the U.S Embassy. People who thought policies would change were sadly disappointed.   If anything, activity increased. For instance, the clasped-hand symbol of the U.S. Aid Mission to Laos found its way on everything from ceiling fans to gasoline cans.

       Our airlines supplied aid outside of Vientiane and fueled the war on The Plain of Jars.   Dressed simply in blue jeans and frequently armed with only a plastic badge, Jack had to use his wits to defend himself.   It was well known that the imperialists were a heroic bunch.   The Communist tried to paint our friends as lackeys and falsely portrayed them as the minority.   Their emphasizing the exploitative nature of American neocolonialism was an earnest attempt to ingratiate themselves with the masses.   This never worked as well as American cash.

       Each village controlled by the Communist became a separate target and had to be infiltrated.   Each represented a difficult challenge.   It called for special teams, consisting largely of boys and girls, who were unafraid and entered the villages selling produce.   The advantage of using children was not only because they could move around behind enemy lines without raising suspicion, but also because their information was reliable.   They were special, and Jack loved them.   Jack himself gained a reputation for his toughness, but still the children fondly called him uncle.   Whatever happened, the children’s fortunes were length to his.   Their future depended on the kind of relationship they maintained.   But their reports to him were often the same: “The people are afraid and when the Communist are not watching they intend to leave.”

       Out of necessity information about Jack’s missions had to remain sketchy.   Secrets couldn’t be compromised.   The one thing that could be said was that we weren’t talking about child’s play.   Jack learned to take one day at a time.   A day was minuscule compared to the nights he couldn’t sleep.   Concerning the children, he would regret the stories of massacres and the squalor of refugee camps.   For a man who later stood helplessly by, there were personal reasons for signing on.

 One good thing was that there was money to be made in Laos, big money commensurate with the risks.   But even more than the money, it was adventure that kept drawing Jack back to Laos.   With its invisible battle lines, insurgents, and armies of national liberation, the war had become his baby.   e was indeed a rare bird, one of those men who thrived on danger; and outside of the relative safety of Vientiane, Laos was a dangerous place.

      Before the Americans came to The Land of Oz, killing hadn’t necessarily been part of the war there.   Then the Americans came and the killing increased, but then when they left, it exploded. Jack could never erase his feelings of guilt over abandoning his friends.   These feelings would become part of his tapestry.   By now the war was no longer news, though people didn’t want to be reminded of the gruesome details.

       Nothing divided the American people more than contentious feelings over this war.   The war often pitted family members against each other, and here at home it was the source of much of Jack’s stress.

      Randy Ford

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